A new survey claims that civilian drones are now saving one life per week on average. BILL READ FRAeS looks at the potential of drones in search and rescue operations and what more help they could offer in the future.

In recent years, drones have often had a bad press from tabloid headlines on ‘killer drones’ used in military conflicts to safety and privacy concerns arising from the profileration of commercial drones.

However, a new survey - commissioned by commercial drone manufacturers DJI Technology - is keen to stress the positive side of unmanned systems. Entitled Lives Saved: A Survey of Drones in Action, the report focuses on situations in which drones have been used in a positive role - to save lives.

The report describes how unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) can now enable people to accomplish tasks faster, more efficiently, at a lower cost and (in many cases) more safely than in the past. However, it continues, the most consequential use of drones may be to save and protect human life.

Send in the drones

For firefighters, rescue squads and search operations, drones offer an unprecedented way to quickly locate missing people with cameras or thermal imaging sensors, as well as bringing them emergency supplies, such as water, life jackets, medicine and rescue ropes. Drones also can also provide an eye in the sky to monitor and protect rescue personnel during fires and operations without exposing them to danger and narrow the area where human searchers need to put themselves at risk, speeding up the rescue effort and increasing the odds of survival.

Life savers

The DJI report publishes what it claims to be the first list of lives saved with assistance from drones based on a search of news media reports from around the world. According to the list, there were 18 reported incidents in which at least 59 lives were saved through the use of drones.

Country               Date                  Lives saved             Description media coverage

Canada                 9 May 2013        1                             Infrared camera finds man in snowy field

USA                      17 May 2015      4                             Volunteer helps rescue four with drone

USA                      30 Jun 2015       2                             Drone brings life vests and ropes to teens

China                    8 Nov 2015        14                           Drone delivers supplies to trapped workers

China                    5 May 2016        6                             Drone brings rescue gear to trapped people

USA                      21 Jun 2016       1                             Drone finds missing woman in field

USA                      13 July 2016       2                             Drone finds missing heart attack victim

USA                       24 Aug 2016      1                             Volunteer finds, aids stranded kayaker

China                     26 Aug 2016      3                             Drone finds, saves three after flood

China                    1 Sep 2016         3                             Drone finds trapped soldiers after flood

USA                      17 Sep 2016       1                             Lost hunter and dog found with drone

USA                      9 Oct 2016         1                             Twitter tip leads drone to stranded man

Canada                 14 Oct 2016        1                             Man with dementia found in dark cornfield

UAE                       27 Oct 2016       2                             Drone saving lives off beaches

China                    26 Nov 2016       1                             Lost hiker found with drone

USA                      14 Jan 2017        2                             Heat sensing drone finds kayakers at night

Turkey                  15 Feb 2017       10                           Missing film crew found in snowy terrain

Canada                 20 Feb 2017        4                             Drone finds lost skiers and snowboarders

DJI explains that they chose these cases ‘conservatively, selecting only those in which media accounts clearly demonstrated that people in imminent peril were directly located, assisted and/or rescued with drones’. To qualify for inclusion in the table, a news report was required to indicate that (1) a person was in a state of danger that could imperil his or her life, including situations involving floods, fires, missing people, exposure to extreme weather, or other hazardous environments; and (2) that a drone operation played a material role in returning that person to an environment of personal safety. Incidents were not included from reports where the number of people rescued was unclear, where the role played by the drone was uncertain or incidents in which drones indirectly helped save lives by taking part in successful searches for missing people.

Eyes in the skies

Infrared images from the Canadian police drone which helped searchers to locate an injured driver in Saskatchewan. (Royal Canadian Mounted Police)

The drone-life saving examples which are on the list include people caught in floodwaters or lost in snowbanks, fields, mountains, rivers, swamps or seashores.

In some of the reported cases the appeal for help came from those who needed assistance and in others, the rescue was initiated by other peopleThe first cited incident on the list concerned an injured driver in Canada who called the emergency services after car crash in Saskatchewan but was unable to give his location.  However, the Canadian Mounties were able to use the infrared cameras on their Draganflyer X4-EX quadcopter to locate the injured man using his cell phone GPS as his last known location.

Rescue by Twitter

Still from a video showing a drone’s eye view of a man trapped in his flooded house at Hope Mills, NC shortly before he was rescued. (ImSoFIRST)

Another of the reported incidents featured what could be the world’s first rescue using Twitter. Following severe flooding of the area around Hope Mills, NC following Hurricane Matthew, film maker Quavas Hart (who uses the Twitter handle @ImSoFIRST) posted pictures on Twitter of the flooded neighbourhood taken from his drone. The pictures were spotted by the brother of a local resident who discovered that he had been trapped inside his house by the floods. Hart flew his drone out again to the house where it was spotted by a rescue team in a boat and the neighbour was rescued.

What is interesting about many of the cases cited in the report is that many of them involve private drone users who used their UAVs to assist the emergency services - a trend that looks set to continue. In April last year, The report’s authors, DJI, has partnered with the European Emergency Number Association (EENA) to help operators learn to fly DJI's Phantom and Inspire drones - as well as being trained in the use of thermal imaging. There is a now an international drone pilots search and rescue volunteer network named S.W.A.R.M (Search With Aerial Rc Multi-Rotor dedicated to searching for missing persons. According to the network’s website (www.sardrones.org), the primary mission of S.W.A.R.M is to provide drone platforms for search and rescue operations for no cost.  

Emergency delivery service

Drone’s eye view of a water bottle being delivered to a lost kayaker. (John Frink)

While many of the incidents involve drones being used to search for people or to guide rescuers to their location, others involved the UAVs being used in a more active role of actually delivering life-saving devices to the people in trouble. The report cites an incident in Maine in June 2015 in which two boys riding on an inner tube became stuck on a rock in the middle of river rapids. The Auburn Fire Department used a DJI Phantom 3 aerial photography drone to carry a haul line from the shore to the rock along which a life jacket was sent before the boys were rescued using an inflatable boat.

In another incident in August 2016, also in North Carolina, a lost kayaker was sighted by police and firefighters who asked for help from a private drone owner John Frink to use his UAV to take him supplies while he waited for assistance.  Frink flew the drone out to the kayaker to deliver him a bottle of water before using the drone’s camera to guide the emergency services boat through a network of creeks to rescue him. A report from local news channel WECT 6 says that the police and fire services were so impressed with the drone’s capabilities that they want to use them in the future.

A drone delivering emergency supplies to people trapped by floods in China. (cnr.cn)

Drones were also listed as having being used in a couple of incidents in China where they were used to deliver supplies to people who had been trapped by floods. The DJI report also highlighted the fact that drones had been used to help rescue hundreds of people trapped by floods in India in December 2015 but these had not been included in the list as no definitive count was available.

Drones to the rescue

Looking beyond the incidents listed in the report, there is plenty of additional evidence of the increasing use of drones in search and rescue operations with a growing number of police forces and emergency services using drones to assist in their work. In 2007 The West Midlands Fire Service claimed to be the first UK fire department to begin using drones. A report by Sky News in May last year claimed that two thirds of fire services in the UK and half of police forces were either using drones or had plans to introduce them. The Mid and West Wales Fire Service has been given Welsh government funding for some of their UAVs.

Drone manufacturer Skyranger is actively marketing drones to the police, fire and emergency services for use in road traffic accident investigation, disaster and emergency response, fire monitoring and search and rescue operations. In 2016 a Skyranger drone was acquired by the Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service in Chorly and is available for use by the local fire service and the Lancashire police.

Tests have been conducted with the Greater Copenhagen Fire Department in Denmark to find drone applications for firefighting, car accidents and assessing chemical accidents and with the Donegal Mountain Rescue Team in Ireland to co-ordinate search and rescue missions in remote areas.

Disaster relief organisations are also recognising the importance of drones. In 2015, the American Red Cross published a report in conjunction with advisory company Measure (http://www.measure.aero/drones-for-disaster-response-and-relief-operations-executive-summary/ ) outlining how drones could be used to help first responders to assess and monitor disaster situations to target the right help to the right place. 

Thermal image of a boat at night taken from Altigator drone. (Altigator)

Belgian drone manufacturer AltiGator recently conducted a 24 hour exercise in a demolished industrial complex near Athens to test the effectiveness of drones in assisting governmental and other emergency services with the aftermath of an earthquake. The drones were used to provide aerial situational awareness of damaged areas to rescue teams. AltiGator has also developed a OnyxStar ROX-C8 XT customised rescue drone designed to detect immigrants crossing the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece. The drone was used by the Hellenic Rescue Team on the island of Kos to search for immigrant boats and assist search and rescue operations if they get into trouble.

Maritime rescue drones

A prototype of the Iranian Pars sea-rescue drone was tested over the Caspian Sea in 2013. (RTS Labs)

Drones are also being adapted to assist with maritime search and rescue operations. The DJL report refers to an incident in which two people who were rescued from the coast of Ajman in the UAE by a customised maritime rescue drone which was undergoing trials in October last year. In addition to its own cameras, the drone also carried four ring buoys fitted with cameras.

Multiple Pars sea rescue drones could operate from floating platforms fitted with solar panels. (RTS Labs)

In 2013 the RTS Lab in Tehran was reported to be developing a quadcopter specifically designed to respond to people in difficulty in the sea. Named Pars, the drone can operate as part of a group from a sea platform fitted with solar panels to recharge batteries. Pars is fitted with GPS, sound and image processing, autopilot search and rescue, LED lighting to be visible in the dark and a FLIR thermal camera for detecting people in the sea. The drone would be able to carry a number of lifebelts which could be dropped to people in trouble in the water.

Ambulance drones

A still from a Dutch promotional video showing how a ‘flying medical toolbox’ drone could be used to carry defibrillator to heart attack victims. (TU Delft)

Ideas are being put forward for specialised drones designed to carry medical supplies. Dutch engineering graduate Alec Momont has proposed a ‘flying medical toolbox’ drone which could carry a defibrillator to heart attack victims, an oxygen mask to someone trapped in a fire or an insulin injection to a diabetic.

Artist’s concept from argodesign of a stretcher-carrying drone being deployed to the scene of an accident. (argodesign)

But it doesn’t end there. Drone designs large enough to carry casualties from accidents are under active consideration. Tactical Robotics, which is developing the AirMule flying car for the military market, have proposed a ‘drone ambulance’ version capable of carrying up to two injured soldiers. US design company argodesign has also produced a concept for a flying ambulance drone capable of carrying a single patient that could be deployed to accident scenes.

The drone advantage

However, before the suggestion is made that drones could eventually replace fixed wing aircraft, helicopters or manned ground and sea vehicles in rescue operations, a word of caution. As the DJI report and other evidence suggests, there is certainly a huge potential in the use of drones in search and rescue operations, as they are easy to deploy, cheap to operate and can get closer to people who need help. However, it must be noted that they cannot do everything. A camera eye-in-the-sky is only of practical use in saving lives if a drone operator knows what they are looking for. A drone camera has a relatively narrow field of view compared to a human observer in a helicopter who could scan a wider area. In addition, while private drones have also proved most useful in situations where there is a known objective, drones could be at their most useful acting in groups linked into a police, military or emergency response sensor network instead of operating in isolation.

Having said that, drones are a most welcome addition to the assets available for search and rescue operations. The next life saved by a drone might be yours.















Bill Read
21 March 2017

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